A recent improv class reminded me why I actively avoided performing it ever since my first encounter in junior high. Every thing about improv puts me in a situation that is terrifying to me: I can’t control the performance, I can’t control the trajectory of the scene, I can’t even control who I am. That same class, however, reaffirmed for me why I’ve chosen to tackle this fear and furthermore let me know that I am getting better at picking up from work that left me in a bad place, if only a little bit at a time.
The less I know about what’s going on at any given time, the more likely it is that I’ll hold still and be quiet until I get a kind of lay of the land. This isn’t self-imposed silence. I can’t stress that enough; I’m quiet, not because I feel shushed, but because I lack anything to say for myself until I understand how I want to present myself. I make that delineation because I want to be specific that I identify as introverted, not shy.
Improv forces me to run counter to my natural programming by demanding an immediate and creative response. I can’t just sit back and intellectually take in what’s going on I have to be a live wire in the midst of the situation. Moreover, I’m there as a character that would be there, not as me. This is both extra work and a saving grace. It shouldn’t be as hard as it is to avoid taking personally what my scene partners say to me, but it can be. But if I can come up with a character fast enough it’s like the other players take a swing at me but hit the shield that is my character’s facade. The characters in my head are generally slicker than me and can coolly deflect a roundhouse without breaking a sweat.
If I don’t get that character together and up fast enough I’m stuck taking the swing that is an avalanche of information coming at me full force. And that’s the trouble. I don’t think of myself as cool enough to tangle with situations I don’t understand. And when those situations include other people blatantly ignoring social norms – becoming threatening, getting too close or too loud – it’s hard as fuck to ignore my instinctual responses. If I’m not ready for the madness that improv can summon I can easily end up stuck between a really hard rock and the worst place for me. My mind completely shuts down leaving only a tiny handful of options – all of which would end the scene if I acted on them, and possibly lead to me exiting the class.
Come up with a creative response? No. Not when it’s all I can do to keep from bursting into tears or running off stage. Or hitting someone. Bottom line, I can’t figure out how to go on with the scene. All of my instincts (ALL of them) want me to get out and a tantrum would be as effective as locking myself in the bathroom. I have zero mental space left for a response that has me actually take part in, let alone propel, the scene.
So I give all that as background on what, for me, is the worst case scenario: completely shutting down. As much as acting is an art, it’s also work. If I am to be an actor, shutting down presents a negation of everything I’m trying to do artistically and professionally. So that added anxiety bonus gets tossed on top.
Now, it hardly it ever happens. I can handle most situations on stage (or on a mic) just fine as far as my basic instincts are concerned. I don’t even get much in the way of stage fright – some minimal nerves, maybe. But when it does happen it puts me into a recursive loop of frustration and anxiety (full disclosure, this happens a lot more offstage than on) and it’s tough as hell to break free from it.
Improv to the rescue! Well, sort of. Maybe it’s more like the freedom of improv to the rescue. Probably the last thing I think about when performing is entertaining and getting people to laugh. Every once in a blue moon I’ll come up with a quip that I know will make people giggle, but I have many more priorities ahead of comedy. (Here’s a theory: part of my difficulty stems from others having different goals. Eh, if so that part is a small one.) But improv gives me the room to create based on any reaction so long as the scene keeps growing, even if that is the feeling of irritation.
So, at this recent class I had to make through a scene that I couldn’t get into. I was hemmed in and swiftly shutting down. At the end I took my seat and contemplated leaving the class. But I didn’t. I put together a couple of ideas for upcoming scenes and worked through them even though they were still a bit of a mess. I can’t pinpoint when but I did get to another scene where the anger I was feeling at myself and the situation in front of me gave me an inkling of where to go next. In improv that’s a watershed. It lets me progress from a posture of taking in information to one where I’m leaning forward, putting my thoughts and feelings out into the creation. That’s when the lights turn on. Not all of them, just enough to start picking my way and finding other light switches as I go. That’s when improv is ridiculously fun. That’s when I remember I’m acting, a creator, a being in possession of worlds and words that had never come together quite in such a way before.
That’s how I know improv can help me get to where I need to go.